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Hill Cow Subsidy (Waverley)

Volume 654: debated on Wednesday 28 February 1962

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. E. Wakefield.]

11.10 p.m.

I wish to raise the case of a constituent, Mr. Hammett, a farmer on a considerable scale in the hill land round by the area of Waverley. Last year, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food decided that Mr. Hammett's farm, and others in my constituency, totalling just over 70, would no longer qualify for the hill cow subsidy.

This meant that the hill land which Mr. Hammett has been farming was thereby excluded from the hill cow subsidy area, together with the land of other constituents concerned. This decision was surely of a very wide-ranging effect. I do not think that I can challenge the Minister's right to make such a decision. His right to do so is in the Hill Farming Act, 1956, and in the parent act of 1946.

The point at issue is that, when the 1956 Act was passed, it was clearly understood, by the farmers and the N.F.U. that it would run for seven years, until the end of 1963. Therefore, these farmers laid plans accordingly. In farming, one cannot change from one system to another with great rapidity; one must have time in order to get the new system working well and showing a reasonable and profitable result.

I am reinforced in this by a survey conducted by Professor Ellison, who showed that a very good return had been given to the nation by investing in marginal lands by means of such things as improvement grants. But the Professor emphasised that this must be of long-term duration, for it was no good asking the farmers to change quickly from one thing to another. This was particularly relevant in the case of hill and moorland farming, where life is extremely hard and rough.

My right hon. Friend must therefore justify taking out of the provisions of the Act these farms in my constituency, particularly that of Mr. Hammett. It is easy for my right hon. Friend to say that he can do this under the terms of the Act, but the Act lays down what qualifies a farm for inclusion in the hill cow subsidy. It says that it must be land situated in or consisting predominantly of hill, mountains or heath. Obviously, there cannot be changes in such land in four or five or even seven years. My constituents believe that they are still eligible for the subsidy.

The second qualification is that the land must, even after improvement, be suitable for breeding and rearing of sheep or cattle and not for growing crops for sale, and be suitable for hill or mixed farming. There was no question until last year that Mr. Hammett's farm did not qualify under this heading. From my observation, I know that on the 300-odd acres he farms there are no milking herds or arable crops. This applies to many of my constituents in the total of 70 who were excluded. They do not and cannot possibly fatten or milk, or, indeed, have arable land either. Therefore, on these points, which are the main qualifications for land eligible for the hill cow farming subsidy, surely my right hon. Friend has no right to change his decision either in this case or the others?

The strange thing is that my right hon. Friend's regional controller wrote to my constituent after he had been excluded from the hill cow subsidy saying:
"We would agree, of course, that the appearance of any farm would vary according to the period of the year when it is inspected, but the intrinsic quality of the land which is, after all, what decides its eligibility under the Hill Cow Subsidy Scheme, would not be subject to seasonal variations of this kind."
That was in the letter which said that this farm was to be excluded because it fell outside the area of eligible land.

On those two grounds, I find it incomprehensible why my constituent has been excluded, and this applies also to many of my other hill cow farmers who have been excluded.

It is vital to ensure that a farm which has been improved with the help of the hill cow subsidy scheme is not thereby excluded from receiving any further help. From 1951 to 1957 Mr. Hammett's farm was considered to be eligible for this subsidy. He was eligible for this because his land was poor. The average rainfall is about 75 ins. a year, and that is something. Mr. Hammett has spent a great deal of money on improving and reclaiming his land.

If my hon. Friend is going to say—and I hope that he is not—that because the land has been improved as a result of this grant Mr. Hammett is to be excluded from it henceforth, this proposition will be unacceptable, because it will mean that the bad farmer will go on receiving the grant, and the good farmer will be excluded because he has used the grant for the proper purpose of improving his land. He will in future be debarred from receiving a grant.

It is important that my hon. Friend should accept the principle that no matter how much a farmer may improve his land—as Mr. Hammett has done—he should not be excluded from receiving the hill cow subsidy. The land has not changed. The quality of the soil has not changed. The type of farming carried on has not changed. It is not because Mr. Hammett has improved his farm. What is the reason for this change?

I can only think that it is because the officials who originally inspected his farm have changed and that, therefore, a mistake was made; that a mistake was perhaps made in 1957 when this farm was included in the scheme. The officials who allowed this farm into the scheme have changed. Indeed, we have a new Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and even a new Joint Parliamentary Secretary. Because we have new officials and new Ministers, the original decision has been changed.

I maintain that it is untenable from the point of view of the farming community if every time new officials come into office they look at the Act and interpret it differently, or visit the farm in question and interpret the conditions there differently, or if every time we get new Ministers we get a new interpretation of the Act.

This is a policy of madness. It will mean that no farmer will know from one month to the next what amount of grant he will receive. Surely it cannot be because the personnel of the county agricultural executive committee have changed? Certainly the people who inspected the farm in 1957 were different from those who inspected it recently under my right hon. Friend's revision.

I suppose the reason for this is to be found in a letter which I received from my hon. Friend earlier last year, one written on 18th May. It said that as a result of discussions the Minister had decided that certain areas of Bodmin Moor receiving hill farming subsidy would cease to do so. It stated that the reason was that the Audit and Exchequer Department had insisted that a review should be carried out.

Why had the Audit and Exchequer Department so insisted? Was it because my right hon. Friend had received information which was laid with the Treasury? If so, where did it come from? This was in 1961. I must assume that his officials in Truro gave him the information. I have suggested that they were new officials who were not there originally. If they were there originally, one of them—a very important official, if I may say so; the Land Commissioner—wrote to another of my constituents saying that his decision was final. He wrote to a Mrs. Whitehouse saying that his decision to include her farm within the eligible land for hill farming subsidy was final. That was the Land Commissioner in 1958.

Yet we find that in 1961 the Minister's officials in Truro must have recommended either to my right hon. Friend or to the Treasury some new revision, apparently on the ground that something had gone wrong. Therefore, it must be a mistake which has been causing my constituents hardship. If it is a mistake, surely it is time for my hon. Friend to be large-hearted and magnanimous and admit that it is so. I have no wish to apportion blame on anybody, but if anything has happened because a mistake has been made, I beg my hon. Friend not to continue making the mistake and perpetuating a hardship which undoubtedly applies, if not in the case of Mr. Hammett, to many others of my constituents.

Here is an extraordinary point in the case. Mr. Hammett's farm is 356 acres. In 1951 the farm comprised half common moorland and half rough scrub on the moorside. It rises to a height of 550 feet and is completely exposed to the Atlantic; there is no high ground between it and the ocean, and the Atlantic gales and the salt air come in during the winter months. It was refused a grant for reclamation because it was too bad. The grant was refused by the Ministry, the N.F.U. consultants and the C.A.E.C. in 1951. Yet in 1961 it is taken out of the area because it is too good. This is madness.

On this farm—I will not weary the House with details of the figures—Mr. Hammett has done a tremendous amount of work in reclaiming it. He has reclaimed more than half what was there, and on it he has spent out of his own money—not grants—£14,000. His net profit over 10 years was £10,000—farming 356 acres. That is not particularly high considering the capital that he has had to invest in it. Talking about the capital costs does not take into account the actual labour that he has put into it.

This sort of situation has occurred all over my constituency—farmers at 900 ft. with a rainfall of more than 80 in. They have been excluded because of an arbitrary decision by my right hon. Friend to draw a line along a certain road, contour line or river, and a great deal of hardship has been caused by it.

Finally, on this farm there has been an enormous increase in both cattle and sheep. In 1951, the year the reclamation was started, there were 100 cattle and in 1961 180. In 1951 there were 170 sheep and in 1961 240 ewes. Before that date there was nothing. The land was common scrub with perhaps one animal per acre.

Surely the important principle here is that of the production of meat off the land. If the subsidy is stopped, the land will go back to what it was originally and become completely non-profitable. Over ten years the profit off the land amounted to a mere £4,200. If this land becomes common land again, the mutton and beef which has been reared on it will be lost and I cannot believe that such a decision is right. Even more so is this decision wrong in the case of the farmers who live up on the moors. I hope that my hon. Friend will regard this matter sympathetically. I am not trying to apportion the blame on any one body. I hope that the Minister will try to help us and that, in view of the circumstances, he will look again at this matter, particularly from the point of view of Mr. Hammett and from the point of view that we need more beef, mutton and lamb, and that the land should not be allowed to go back to its original state.

May I ask for the help of the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) as I have great sympathy with what he has said? Does he know the nature and extent of the survey carried out in 1957 prior to the grant being made? Secondly, was there any subsequent inspection or survey prior to the receipt of the letter of 18th May in which the grant was revoked? Thirdly, were any reasons put forward for the revocation and, fourthly, what is the financial sum involved?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will excuse me if I forget the sequence of his questions. The land was inspected by the A.E.C.—as it then was—on 1st July, 1951. It was turned down as being too poor. It was inspected again in 1957 by the C.A.E.C. and by the Minister's officers from Truro and was accepted into the hill cow farming area. It was inspected again in 1959 and in 1960 by the C.A.E.C. and the Minister's officers, and also by a panel from the N.F.U. which offered no opinion. After the inspections the recommendation of the C.A.E.C. was that this farm should be excluded. I would hasten to add that the personnel of the C.A.E.C. was not the same in the latter inspections as in the former and none of them was a hill farmer. The other question I have forgotten.

Were there indications of the reason for the revocation and what was the sum involved?

The letter was in reply to Mr. Hammett who wrote complaining that he had been excluded and asking to be included. But my right hon. Friend did not reply and the letter was passed to his regional officer.

11.28 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. W. M. F. Vane)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) for the way in which he has presented the case for his constituent. This debate, I hope, will enable me to explain why we have been forced to stop paying this subsidy. The legislation does not allow us to continue, and this is not confined to the case of Mr. Hammett. It has nothing to do with a change of Minister, or of Parliamentary Secretary or of officials. It is simply a matter of what the Statute allows us to do. The question whether land is eligible in any year for subsidy must be determined according to the facts during that year.

In many of our grant and subsidy schemes, this one included, we have to face the problem of drawing distinctions between one farmer and another simply because our statutory authority requires us to see that certain tests are met before we pay out public money. Where there is a difference of opinion we do all we can to take account of experienced local opinion, including the views of the farmers concerned. But in the last resort my right hon. Friend must take the decision within the limits of what the law allows.

I agree that it is unfortunate for anyone to find his farm is no longer eligible for a specific subsidy, as has happened to Mr. Hammett. The purpose of the hill cow subsidy, which was introduced as long ago as 1953, was to encourage the improvement of grazings and the production of beef cattle on hill land which was inherently suitable only for livestock breeding and rearing. We were not aiming to help all the many farmers carrying on a breeding or rearing policy on land which could equally have been used for dairying or for the fattening of livestock or for a substantial acreage of crops for sale.

With this in mind the Statute lays down that to be eligible for hill cow subsidy, land must lie in an area of mountains, hills or heath and must not be capable, even after improvement, of being used for dairying, fattening or cash crops to any material extent. Here I think that my hon. Friend was not accurate when he described Mr. Hammett's farm because, according to the information which I have, some 75 acres were being used in 1961 for barley, 26 acres for potatoes, and the greater part of the farm is capable of being ploughed. I think, therefore, that my hon. Friend should bear that in mind.

This requirement in the statutory scheme governs the payment of hill cow subsidy and we have no discretion to depart from it. Moreover, the subsidy is an annual one, so that the statutory tests have to be satisfied every time it is paid and I have the authority of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General for that ruling. Naturally, there are extensive areas of mountain, hill and heathland which unquestionably could never be used for dairying, fattening or growing a substantial proportion of arable crops and there is land so obviously suitable for these purposes that it can be rejected out of hand. But there are a number of places where the distinction is not so clear. This can happen along the contour where the upland and lowland merge or in districts where fertile valleys run up into the hills. It can also happen where land which is intrinsically suitable for other uses has traditionally been used for livestock rearing. But if no improvements have been carried out such land can look very poor indeed.

After improvement, however, it can prove to be very different. This is the case in many parts of the West Country and particularly on the fringe of Bodmin Moor where Mr. Hammett farms. Perhaps I could take this opportunity of saying that our rejection is no reflection on Mr. Hammett's ability as a farmer, rather the reverse. For many years he served as chairman of the northern district committee of the Cornwall Agricultural Executive Committee. In that position his advice and experience were invaluable and his resignation has been a loss to us.

On poor-looking upland, such as I have described, Mr. Hammett undertook comprehensive improvement schemes costing some thousands of pounds to which the Ministry agreed to contribute to 50 per cent. of the cost under the Livestock Rearing Act, 1951, which includes the same definition of eligible land as the hill cow subsidy scheme. As a result of these improvements, and by the generous use of fertilisers and first-class husbandry, he proved that this land was capable of producing good quality lambs, good yields of seed potatoes and fair cereal crops.

I have briefly mentioned some acreages, and I can say that of the total of 357 acres something like 321 acres have been classed as arable. It has been argued by my hon. Friend that on the face of it it might look rather unfair that a farmer like Mr. Hammett should be liable to deprive himself of the hill cow subsidy by proving that his land was better than anyone thought it to be in 1953, but I am sure that we would have been quite wrong to continue paying hill cow subsidy on his land after he had shown that it could do better than we thought.

I would, however, remind the House that the object of the improvement schemes under the Hill Farming and Livestock Rearing Acts was to rehabilitate hill farms which could be used for livestock rearing but little else. I am certain that those responsible for approving Mr. Hammett's improvement schemes for grant-aid in 1952 and 1954 were right to do so and we are pledged to pay our share of their cost until completion. This is, of course, also the case with certain other farmers on the fringe of Bodmin Moor.

In 1953 a number of them were admitted for the new hill cow subsidy because their land, like Mr. Hammett's, appeared to be not suitable to produce anything other than store or breeding stock. In recent years technical advance and better methods of husbandry have shown many of these farms which do not lie at a high altitude to be suitable for dairying, fattening or crop production. Once this was shown to be so, we had no power to continue paying the hill cow subsidy because of the Statute.

I have looked very carefully into the circumstances in which 46 farms. including Mr. Hammett's, were excluded from the subsidy and a further 35 had their eligible acreage reduced, and I am satisfied that everything possible was done to conduct the review of these farms fairly and to take account of the farmers' own representations and expert local opinion. I say again that we are simply concerned with the hill cow subsidy and are not doing anything likely greatly to change a farm system as my hon. Friend inferred in his speech. My right hon. Friend saw the hon. Member and the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Marshall) and explained the position, and I hope the House will agree after I have outlined the course of events that the Ministry has been reasonable.

After our professional officers had repeated doubts about the eligibility of certain land, a panel of Ministry officers and members of the Cornwall Agricultural Executive Committee reviewed the area in May, 1959, and indicated that certain districts were potentially ineligible. These conclusions were discussed with the farmers' representatives locally, and a joint panel of the county agricultural executive committee and the National Farmers' Union inspected the area again in November. Very careful consideration was then given to the matter at the headquarters of the Ministry and my right hon. Friend himself before he decided that the land was indeed ineligible and that we must therefore stop paying the subsidy to the farmers concerned. Those farmers who made representations against the decision were again visited by panels of the agricultural executive committee with the National Farmers' Union representation if they wished and had the opportunity of stating their case to the committee in July, 1961. As an exceptional arrangement, the subsidy was paid for the whole of 1961. Thus it was a full two years from the time when we first felt doubts about this land to the time when we stopped paying subsidy. I am therefore satisfied that the most careful consideration has been given to the eligibility of this land, but I am afraid there is no possibility of reconsidering the decision.

I assure the hon. Member that it is a matter of great regret that someone as progressive and helpful to the Ministry as Mr. Hammett should feel so keenly about the decision and I do hope that the explanation I have given tonight will go some way towards convincing him and other farmers in a like situation that we have only been actuated by an honest endeavour to administer this subsidy scheme in Cornwall in the way that Parliament intended. My hon. Friend will realise that it is our duty to satisfy the tests that the Statutes lay down and that it is also our duty to maintain standards of consistency between one area and another. When we carry out these reviews we do so in no other spirit than I have described as an honest endeavour to administer these schemes in Cornwall and elsewhere in the way that Parliament intended.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Twelve o'clock.